I’m grateful to everyone who commented. It was helpful to hear from real people. Nonetheless, I’m just not seeing what these programs can do for me that I can’t already do with Word, Excel, Adobe Acrobat, and my computer’s Search function.
It sounds like what a lot of people like is the bibliography capabilities of these programs. Bibliography is the least of my worries. Having graduated from college before the advent of the word processor, I long ago developed my own methods for keeping track of the books and articles I read. Compared to hand-writing entries on index cards and re-typing whole pages when the mistakes became too prolific to keep applying Wite-out, changing MLA format to Chicago style is a trivial matter.
I can also take notes on PDFs using Acrobat, and copy those notes into files in Word. And Word allows me to paste in snippets cut from pictures of manuscripts.
Dropbox allows the same material to appear on multiple devices, with fewer privacy-compromising issues than OneNote.
I can see how a certain kind of mind would love electronic notecards or corkboard, something that looks like the bits of paper but can be searched electronically. It sounds cool. But. Maybe it’s my age, or maybe some other element of my mental makeup, but that makes me totally crazy. I want either paper or a tidy typed list or paragraph onscreen.
Any operating system worth its salt allows a user to create as many folders as she likes, into which PDFs, scans, pictures, notes, and screenshots can be saved in whatever combination seems appropriate. The search function allows searching within files as well as for file names. This is the 21st century: we have optical character recognition (at least in modern fonts; it sure would be nice to have a program that can read medieval chancery hand). Many documents in different programs can be open at the same time, and with a large enough monitor, or multiple monitors, they can all display at once. Sir John even has a nifty utility that allows him to toggle between different desktop displays (so he can have, say, four windows with different programs quartering his monitor, and then with one click have four completely different ones appear). I don’t actually want that much going on at once, but he could make it happen for me if I wanted. He could also write me a fancier search program if I knew what I needed.
And there’s the real problem. What I want is a way to make thinking easier. Remember my man John McPhee?
“Each of those . . . structures was worked out after copying with a typewriter all notes from notebooks and transcribing the contents of microcassettes. . . . The note-typing could take many weeks, but it collected everything in one legible place, and it ran all the raw material in some concentration through the mind.
“The notes from one to the next frequently had little in common. They jumped from topic to topic, and only in places were sequentially narrative. So I always rolled the platen and left blank spaces after each item to accommodate the scissors that were fundamental to my advanced methodology. After reading and rereading the typed notes and then developing the structure and then coding the notes accordingly in the margins and then photocopying the whole of it, I would go at the copied set with the scissors, cutting each sheet into slivers of varying size. If the structure had, say, thirty parts, the slivers would end up in thirty piles that would be put into thirty manila folders.”
Even the computer program that he eventually got to do some of this work for him was based on his own coding process. A programmer talked to him for a long time before working out how to write a program that would simplify the sorting of the notes. But the codes are the hard part. It doesn’t help to search for everything to do with, for instance, the process of making cheese, if you don’t want to write a whole section of your essay (or chapter, or book) on cheese-making. If the cheese-making process is providing the chronological structure of an essay about Cheese in Chaucer, then your codes need to indicate that Step One (milk the cow) goes with the widow in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, and Step Two (add rennet) goes with the alchemical processes of the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, and so on.
Getting everything in one place is the easy part. It’s breaking it apart again that is difficult.
As Susan observed in comments to the McPhee post referenced above, “McPhee’s structure is part of the work.” That is, writing for humanists means discovering the relationships between the parts of your work; the structure is not standard (introduction, methods, results). Working through all this shows me that there are ways I could make things a little easier on myself. I could make better use of folders, and more use of Excel. But in the last analysis, what I really need to do is think, and there aren’t really any shortcuts for thinking.